Late Blackhawks comeback falls short

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Late Blackhawks comeback falls short

PITTSBURGH, Pa. The Chicago Blackhawks final 20 minutes was exactly what they were looking for against the Pittsburgh Penguins. Unfortunately, the first 40 werent.

Jonathan Toews and Viktor Stalberg scored, but the Blackhawks lost Marcus Kruger for the final two periods to injury and the game to the Pittsburgh Penguins, 3-2 on Tuesday night. It was the Blackhawks first regulation loss in the month of December, and denied them at least a point for the first time in their last nine games.

I dont know what we were playing like in the first 40 minutes, said Stalberg, who also assisted on Toews goal. We basically handed them two points tonight.

But the bigger concern was Kruger. The center was hit hard near the boards by Penguins defenseman Deryk Engelland about midway through the first period. Replays showed that Engelland appeared to leave his feet and hit the Blackhawks center in the head with his forearm.

(Kruger) was on the bench to start the second. A couple of times I had to call him and he didnt end up getting out there, coach Joel Quenneville said. Hes OK now. A high hit, a tough area, he was in a tough spot.

John Scott came to Krugers defense, fighting and bloodying Engelland. Quenneville said Scott did the right thing, but Scott was nevertheless given a two-minute instigator and a 10-minute misconduct. That gave the Pens a power play, which Chris Kunitz converted for a 1-0 lead.

Weve got to find a way to kill that for him, Stalberg said of Scott. John does what hes supposed to do and stands up for a guy, so it was good to see that.

Scott said Im always going to stand up for my teammates. Anybody else on this team wouldve done the same thing.

But the Blackhawks were nevertheless down, as they spent too much of the first 40 minutes in the penalty box. Pittsburgh went on seven power plays, although they scored on just that Scott one. Nevertheless, the Penguins would turn that 1-0 lead into a 3-0 advantage by the end of the second period. James Neal and Tyler Kennedy added the other two Pens goals.

Then the Blackhawks woke up offensively in the third. Toews scored just 49 seconds into the final frame and Stalberg added his goal about five minutes later. The Blackhawks outshot the Penguins 19-4 in the final 20 minutes, and hit a few posts, too.

The Blackhawks final shot came on a power play with about 91 seconds remaining in regulation, but they werent able to convert.

The Blackhawks biggest player came to a teammates defense. And the Blackhawks nearly came back from the first 40 so-so minutes. The former couldnt be avoided. The latter couldve been.

We won the third but its frustrating we couldnt do that for a full 60 minutes, Stalberg said. We have to find a way to be more prepared. We cant start like that against a team like this. Theyre too good and theyre going to take advantage of us.

Briefly

Brent Seabrook played after being hit from behind on Sunday. He played just over 23 minutes, with six blocked shots and three shots on goal.

Marian Hossas secondary assist on Stalbergs goal extended his point streak to six games.

Patrick Sharps point streak was snapped at nine games.

Blackhawks goalie Scott Darling taking advantage of No. 1 reps

Blackhawks goalie Scott Darling taking advantage of No. 1 reps

Life as a backup goaltender can be difficult. 

The job entails being prepared at all times and performing at a high level when your number is called despite going sometimes weeks without seeing any action.

With Corey Crawford backing up Team Canada at the World Cup of Hockey, Scott Darling is getting the No. 1 reps in the crease for the Blackhawks.

And he's taking full advantage of that.

"Yeah, obviously I miss Corey, but it's fun to be the guy right now," Darling said following a 2-0 loss in Wednesday's preseason opener to the Pittsburgh Penguins. "I'll take any starts I can get. I don't care if it's regular season or preseason, I just want to play as much as I can. It was nice to get the first game under my belt."

After facing just three shots in the first period, Darling stayed on his toes by denying all 23 shots he saw in the second period — a handful of them on the penalty kill.

"I definitely don't like sitting there," Darling said of the first period. "I don't think they had a shot for about 12 minutes, but you've got to learn how to play in those situations too. It's nice to get some game feels."

Darling finished with 33 saves overall in the Blackhawks' loss and was sharp in the first dress rehearsal of the year as both goals were out of his control — a redirect on the power play and a rebound tap-in at the doorstep, both by Chris Kunitz.

Credit his strong play to working hard in the offseason and maximizing on the opportunity he's been given.

"Darling certainly was a standout, not only when we got a little bit overwhelmed in the second period, but really throughout the game," Blackhawks assistant coach Kevin Dineen said. "He was certainly a positive, which we always expect out of him but I think it's a testament to the way he prepared himself this summer and I think it certainly showed tonight." 

Darling doesn't get many chances to anchor the blue paint on a nightly basis.

He started in 24 games last season, 11 of which came during the final portion of the season in March and April when Crawford was dealing with an upper-body injury.

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Darling said that stretch was "probably the best I've ever felt" because you know you're the guy, which eliminates the stress factor of turning in a great performance to earn your next start.

He finished the 2015-16 campaign with a 12-8-4 record, 2.58 goals against average and .915 save percentage, including one shutout.

Not bad, not great. 

This season is a chance to prove he can continue to be a consistent and reliable goaltender in any situation, and when the 27-year-old Lemont native gets the opportunity to represent the team he grew up rooting for — something he never loses sight of — Darling expects to be on top of his game when called upon.

"I'm seriously excited to be on the Chicago Blackhawks still," he said. "I just want to play the best I can when they give me a chance to play."

Nick Schmaltz making good early impression with Blackhawks

Nick Schmaltz making good early impression with Blackhawks

Nick Schmaltz figured it would be different at this level.

Yes, Schmaltz had played against some of college’s best en route to that national title with the University of North Dakota. But the pro level is the pro level for a reason.

“It’s a big transition from the college level. Guys are faster, more skilled, and you have less time and space,” he said. “But as camp’s gone on everyone’s gotten a little more comfortable and making more plays and I think we’ll continue that into tonight.”

Schmaltz looked pretty comfortable on Wednesday night, when the Blackhawks lost their preseason opener to the Pittsburgh Penguins, 2-0. Schmaltz logged 18 minutes, 30 seconds of ice time, including 2:53 on the power play. For the Madison, Wisc., kid who used to come to Blackhawks playoff games, playing that first game at the United Center was “surreal.”

“It was good,” he said after the game. “Obviously we didn’t get the results we wanted, but we had some good opportunities. We can get more pucks on net. We let the goalie off a little easy, but hopefully just keep building and keep getting better every day.”

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Schmaltz has practiced some on the left wing, and that’s where he was in Wednesday night’s scrimmage (with Vinnie Hinostroza centering and Richard Panik on right wing). The Blackhawks always love versatility, but Schmaltz going on the wing is more of a need than an option right now.

“Most of the openings in the organization are on the wing. We’re pretty full down the middle. It’s something we’re trying to see if he can fit in there and play well there,” assistant coach Mike Kitchen said. “And he’s got a nice set of hands, a nice skill set, so hopefully he’ll be comfortable on the wing there.”

Schmaltz has played more right wing than left, but he said the adjustments aren’t so bad.

“Just wall work. Might have to make some backhand plays off the wall but other than that, nothing, really,” Schmaltz said. “Since me and Panik are playing off wing, we’ll get across the blue line, cut across and make plays to each other. It’ll be fun out there.”

Schmaltz held his own in his first game in a Blackhawks uniform. There are high expectations for him entering this season, but he’ll let his game dictate where he ends up.

“If I play my game, play hard, I should put myself in a pretty good spot,” he said. “But I can’t control what decisions they make, so I’ll compete as hard as I can every night and show them what I can do.”